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The Vatican’s Contraception Confusion

It's like the heady days of Humanae Vitae all over again. Will Pope Francis reverse the Church's teaching on contraception? Can he?

“When it comes to Humanae Vitae, and the earlier stance contained in Casti connubii—which was even stronger—we are in the realm of doctrina reformabilis (‘reformable doctrine’).”

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In the history of the Christian religion, 1930 was a watershed year. It was then that the Anglican church, at the roughly decennial Lambeth Conference, decided that married couples, for serious reasons, could make use of artificial contraceptives. Like dominoes, the other Protestant denominations approved of contraception not long after.

Only the Catholic Church, faithful to its sacred tradition, insisted that artificial contraception is intrinsically immoral—intrinsic, meaning that under no circumstances could such methods of birth control be employed—and the Church has no authority to alter this teaching. Indeed, Pope Pius XI was compelled to respond to the Anglicans’ departure from it. He did so in his encyclical on marriage, Casti Connubii—“On Chaste Married Love”—released December 31, 1930.

We now live in a culture that takes contraceptive use for granted, just as it takes sex without marriage for granted. The bond connecting marriage, sex, and children was especially eroded in the 1960s by the invention of reliable birth control methods, notably the birth control pill. Catholics were much confused by this new contraceptive method. After all, the Pill was not a barrier method—and so hormonal contraceptives did not appear to physically alter the conjugal act. Many Catholic couples wondered if such “invisible” methods actually fell under the Church’s ban on contraceptives.

On July 28, 1968, Pope St. Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, “Of Human Life”—his famous birth control encyclical. For many inside and outside the Church clamoring for a change, Humanae Vitae was a huge disappointment. Far from going the way of the Anglicans back in 1930, Paul VI reaffirmed the unbroken Catholic teaching that all forms of contraception, including the “invisible” Pill, are contrary to the natural law of God. Article 14 states, “Excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.”

Humanae Vitae was instantly greeted with derision—and with open rebellion among many theologians, priests, and even bishops. Over the last fifty years, a majority of Catholics have either struggled with the teaching or ignored it altogether.

But the Church’s teaching is based on what is known as natural law. Natural law is God’s wisdom, by which the world is created, and more specifically God’s law—or wisdom—by which he created the human person. And so natural law is simply a way to understand what a human being is for.

Article 12 is the most important section of Humanae Vitae. As Catholics, we should at least know what is taught there and make an effort to understand this teaching. Namely,

this particular doctrine, often expounded by the Magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.

The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this is a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called.

Fast-forward to the year 2022. A fresh controversy has erupted—we may even say a scandal. Consider the following statement: “Since there are conditions and practical circumstances that would make the choice to generate irresponsible . . . a married couple may decide to resort, with a wise choice, to contraceptive techniques, obviously excluding abortive ones.”

This not a statement from the 1930 Lambeth Conference. No, instead, it comes from the Vatican. I am referring to a new volume on bioethics, released by the Pontifical Academy for Life, published by the Vatican’s publishing arm, Libreria Editrice Vaticana. The PAL volume is entitled Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition, and Practical Challenges. It is a 528-page synthesis of the proceedings of a 2021 PAL-sponsored theological seminar. On the one hand, a member of the PAL’s board of directors publicly insisted that the Church’s teaching has not changed, and, indeed, that the passages approving of artificial contraception “should not have been published” without “further consideration and assessment” from Church authorities. On the other hand, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the PAL, claims that Pope Francis was informed of the preliminary text and encouraged discussion of the issues it covers. And then there is the interview with the PAL’s Fr. Maurizio Chiodi from last week, quoted at the beginning of this article.

In the volume’s introduction, Paglia explains that what must now be considered, as regards Church teaching on sexual ethics, is personal life circumstances—in other words, the conditions in which human beings actually find themselves.

So how does Theological Ethics arrive at approving artificial contraception? Jorge Jose Ferrer, S.J., who wrote the book’s essay on the subject, gets there via chapter 8 of Pope Francis’s 2016 post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Article 302 of Amoris acknowledges the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that our personal culpability for an action can be “diminished or even nullified” (1735) by fear, habit, social circumstances, psychological duress, and other factors. In fact, Amoris goes farther than that: chapter 8, including article 304, cited by Ferrer, is dominated by a moral theology that rests on the primacy of conscience as the ultimate arbiter of whether a person is subjectively culpable for serious sin. Although urging the “development of an enlightened conscience,” Francis in Amoris goes on to state,

Conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal (303).

So it seems fair to conclude that, according to Amoris, God approves of the commission of objective sin—or at least forgives it as it’s being committed.

For Francis, the doctrinal pronouncements of the Church are subordinated to the primary value of mercy—and to insist on the practice of the demands of the gospel (the rules) as a requirement for ecclesial membership opposes this primary value. Rather than mercy and the demands of the gospel existing in a Christian paradox, for Francis, they exist in conflict. This emphasis on mercy first, the ethical requirements of natural law second, explains why Francis consistently refers to moral absolutes in Amoris as the “ideal,” with the emphasis placed on appreciating that mitigating circumstances prevent many from reaching that “ideal.”

We might be tempted to say, then, that Francis, in Amoris, paved the way for Theological Ethics’ quite strongly apparent approval of artificial contraception. But there is this wrinkle: in article 80, Francis affirms the Church’s longstanding position.

The conjugal union is ordered to procreation “by its very nature.” The child who is born “does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfilment.” He or she does not appear at the end of a process, but is present from the beginning of love as an essential feature, one that cannot be denied without disfiguring that love itself. From the outset, love refuses every impulse to close in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning, even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life.

Let us hope and pray that it is this teaching of Francis, rooted in Humanae Vitae, that prevails. Indeed, it must.

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